Tackling the basics

Homeless advocate says talks on 24-hour restroom access ‘a good start.’

Chico city staff is investigating the costs of renovating the restrooms at City Plaza so that they’d be accessible 24 hours a day.

Chico city staff is investigating the costs of renovating the restrooms at City Plaza so that they’d be accessible 24 hours a day.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As Chicoans come to grips with the extent and implications of homelessness, basic functions have become topics of serious consideration. The three Chico City Council members composing the city’s Internal Affairs Committee—Andrew Coolidge, Reanette Fillmer and Tami Ritter—tackled one of them at their last meeting, Feb. 10.

Namely, to quote the title of a best-selling children’s book: Everyone poops.

Restroom facilities can be elusive for homeless people in Chico—particularly so downtown, along Mangrove and Park avenues, and most everywhere at night. The city has received complaints from residents and business owners about human waste on the premises. The connection is obvious.

“People take it for granted,” said Cynthia Gailey, a member of the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), “but if you don’t have a home, you have to poop somewhere else. If you’re not welcome in businesses unless you can spend your money, and the [public] restrooms around town are closed—and there are very few of them anyway—it gets to be a problem.”

Ritter, chair of the Internal Affairs Committee, asked the panel to consider options. After a discussion that expanded in scope to include cyclists and pedestrians in Bidwell Park, the committee unanimously agreed to tandem actions: direct city staff to analyze bathroom solutions for the panel’s future review and refer to the full City Council a request to rent portable toilets that would be placed in the Municipal Center parking lot (bordered by Wall, Fourth and Fifth streets).

The council is slated to consider the porta-potty recommendation March 1.

“It’s not necessarily a fix,” Ritter said, “but it perhaps will alleviate the direct impact now until we can figure out what we’re going to do with our permanent brick-and-mortar bathrooms.”

Gailey, volunteer coordinator for CHAT’s Safe Space winter shelter, says the porta-potties would be “a good start,” but she notes that the need is greater than a few stalls in one location.

First off, she says, not all homeless people in the Chico area bed down in the city center. Then there’s the sheer number of individuals in the homeless population.

“Between the Torres Shelter and Safe Space, we don’t even serve 200 people a night,” Gailey said, “and there’s probably at least another 200 that are sleeping out[side] around Chico.”

One option favored by Gailey, brought forth at the Internal Affairs Committee’s meeting, is the Portland Loo: a prefabricated kiosk containing a flush toilet and hand wash. Ritter said the biggest hurdle is the price tag of $95,000.

So, Ritter continued, city staff also is looking into modifying existing public restrooms to enable 24-hour access. The City Plaza bathrooms could have sinks moved outside and the door locks and mirrors removed.

“Right now, there’s the argument because of the ADA [access requirements for individuals with disabilities], people can lock themselves in there and one or two people can sleep in there or occupy the bathroom for hours when someone else is trying to use it,” Ritter said. Modifications may “make it less appealing for somebody to seek it out for shelter.”

With public attention focused on the tenuous situations of both the Torres Shelter (funding shortfall) and Safe Space (volunteer shortage), Gailey also “would like to see a little more action on figuring out ways to reduce rents in Chico so people can afford a place to live.”

She’ll get no argument from Ritter: “Obviously we’re not addressing the larger issue [behind homelessness], which is that we do not have adequate housing stock. But this [committee] meeting really was to address the impact of that, not to attempt to address the root causes.”